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Tired of waiting for answers, cable customer files suit

A Largo man says Time Warner is charging him for services he didn't want and items he doesn't need.

When Joseph DeSanto got fed up with the cable company, he didn't just yank out the cable and hook up an old rabbit-ear antenna. He sued.

"I am very angry with Time Warner," said DeSanto, who thinks the Tampa Bay area's largest cable provider hits its customers with unnecessary charges. So the 30-year-old retail project manager from Largo filed a suit seeking class-action status against the media giant in Pinellas County Circuit Court.

Time Warner declined to discuss the specifics of pending litigation. But Jeff McQuinn, who heads Time Warner Cable's division office in Tampa, said, "We cannot understand why anyone would have anything against our pricing structure. The company offers as many channels as any other place in the nation and at some of the lowest rates."

DeSanto became a customer of Time Warner Cable in 1996. Ever since, he has been puzzled by a one-dollar "Time Guard" service on his monthly cable bill, which he said he had never ordered.

"Every time I called," DeSanto said, "they gave me a different answer." Time Warner said customers purchase Time Guard to receive cable repairs whenever needed for free.

Late last year, when DeSanto dropped premium channels such as HBO, he discovered the cable boxes that sat on top of the TV sets were no longer necessary. But he said he was still being charged $3 a month for each box. DeSanto also complains that Time Warner ads for special rates on the premium channels don't reveal that they require the cable boxes, with their extra fees.

At the suggestion of a friend, DeSanto approached lawyers at the firm of Staack, Simms and Hernandez.

DeSanto insists it's not overkill to make a court case out of a cable bill.

"It's not a lot of money, but it's like a death of a thousand cuts," De Santo said of the cable charges. "Ten dollars here, $10 there, over the months, years, and think about how many customers they have. It's a lot of money."

James Staack, the lawyer at the firm handling the case, said he did not know how many Time Warner customers nationwide might be eligible to join in if a judge certifies DeSanto's complaint as worthy of class action.

"At this stage, it's only guesswork," said Staack, whose firm could stand to win a share of a successful case."But I would think it's thousands and thousands and thousands of people. A very large number."

James Wood, who investigates consumer complaints for Pinellas County, said in the past five years, 17 complaints were filed against Time Warner with two-thirds of the complaints taken care of by the company promptly. The company has more than 300,000 cable customers in Pinellas.

"That's a pretty good record considering the hundreds and thousands of customers they have," Wood said.

Frank Turano, the cable franchise administrator in Hillsborough County, where Time Warner has about 240,000 cable customers, said the real problem may be customer service.

"Their customer service representatives are often incapable of explaining things adequately, which often aggravates the problem and leaves people with the impression that Time Warner does not care," he said.

"I think it's a communication problem, a training problem. Their turnover rate is too high. If your job is to handle people's complaints, no one wants to stay at the job for too long."

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